As government focussed attention exclusively on reopening schools ( in the hope more parents would be able to return to work), universities anxious about the financial implications of empty campuses and with young people pressured by their schools and the anxieties of parents, taking up places rather than deferring, it hasn’t needed rocket science to predict a potential disaster. Only days into the academic year and in most cases, with only freshers on site, thousands of students at UK universities, including 1700 at Manchester Met alone, have already been ordered to remain in their rooms because of covid outbreaks.
Universities, quick to point to measures that have been taken to ensure compliance with social distancing requirements, initially blamed everything on impromptu student partying and called in security firms. But with public opinion firmly on the students side, the authorities have retreated and now promise food parcels. After being sent home from schools in March, then suffering the exam results debacle, the educational nightmare of an entire cohort of school and college leavers, most of whom have never lived away from home, continues – worsened still by idiotic threats of Christmas lockdowns.
There must be a planned orderly exodus from campus for all students who wish to go back home and the return of existing students must be halted, at the very least until this has happened and a thorough review has taken place. Fees should be cancelled and accommodation costs refunded for those who do not wish to continue, or slashed for anybody happy to continue with online degrees.
Better still, there could be an educational moratorium or a ‘furlough’ – allowing all high stakes courses (particularly A-levels and degrees) to be postponed for a year to encourage schools, colleges and universities some space to recover and reconnect with students. There’s no point at all in pushing young people through courses by shortening syllabuses or delaying exams for a month, when employment prospects and other opportunities remain so dire.
But as argued below – despite discussion about ‘building back better’ there has been little if any new thinking about how a new type of education could be created. Nowhere is this needed more than in the UK’S dysfunctional ‘university or die’ higher education sector.